“Magma causes volcanic eruptions. Lying beneath the ground’s surface, this molten material engages the earth to unleash its own lifeblood.” So reads Gojira’s website, introducing the French quartet and their sixth studio album, Magma. Grief is the magma that fuels the record’s tectonics and – many are saying – shifted Gojira’s sound away from an outward, guttural aggression to a more introspective slow-burn. In early 2015, shortly after completing construction on Silver Cord Studio in New York and settling in to start work on the follow-up to 2012’s acclaimed L’Enfant Sauvage, Joe and Mario Duplantier’s mother fell ill and passed away.
Gojira’s shift away from a technical-metal style to one driven by riff and groove has already divided the group’s fans, but Magma is a concept album about grief as a force of nature, and by employing the seismic as the metaphor with which they explore this emotional territory a highly rhythmic approach proves to be incredibly apt. Much like the drift of the continents, Magma is moved from start to end by an inexorable force, rhythms that are sometimes immediately intelligible, and others that are confusing, frightening, and requiring of patience to grasp. Gojira are still technical, but that technicality is here employed to the rhythmic rather than the melodic.
Singles Silvera and Stranded belt out steady groove-metal hooks, which will induce plenty of head-nodding or foot-tapping, with the former’s brutal energy and lyrics about “bodies falling from the sky” and the destructive nature of humanity linking back to Gojira’s early death-metal tendencies, while Stranded’s pitch-shifted guitar riff twists rhythm into melody. Syncopations are created between the guitars, with their bent chord riff, and the drums on The Cell, which manages to explore grief/anxiety/depression with more nuance than the title would imply. Titular track, Magma, provides a good mix of chugging and melodic guitar lines, with clean and growled vocals, and the cross-fade into Pray links the songs together into a 12 minute pseudo-prog mini-epic.
On the penultimate track, Low Lands, everything that came before proves to have been a warm-up, as the complex rhythmic play on display results in syncopations that don’t originate with any one instrument, but nevertheless emerge. At times Low Lands is reminiscent of Mastodon, an effect that is aided by the vocal delivery, but at the song’s midpoint the tempo halves while the riffs and rhythms remain the same, and the listener is left with stomach churning, trying to reorient themselves, like an unexpected hit of adrenaline, and just as equilibrium is regained Gojira shift to a pounding groove-metal riff and unified, regular, beat.
A moment of silence falls before a subdued acoustic coda starts up. Catharsis has been reached, grief has been traversed, the ground is steady and the upheaval is over. Liberation punctuates this point with a calm acoustic and drum jam that is heavily in debt to middle/near eastern patterns. To criticise Magma for Gojira’s move away from a “technical” metal approach, or its shifting moods, would be missing the point. Magma is an album about the forces that shape our lives and world, and whose patterns are often indiscernible to us.